Lahore: I can’t breathe – 18 Jan 2023

Caution: If you are visiting Lahore after a couple of years, nothing refreshing is waiting

The slogan ‘I can’t breathe’ — associated with Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was killed by a chokehold by a New York City Police Officer — never felt more relevant to me until I landed last week in my hometown, Lahore, during its infamous ‘fifth season’, marked with poisonous smog.

Caution: If you are visiting Lahore after a couple of years, nothing refreshing is waiting. The city will speak volumes about how political anarchy mars the quality of life in an eminent, historic and powerful city where the people are deprived of their most fundamental right to life — to breathe!

Staying longer in the city will mean endless visits to hospitals, loads of medicines intake and sporadic outbursts of vomits due to the hazardous air quality which is 40 times worse than the World Health Organisation standards. Yes, 40 times!

Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air causes varied health complications, including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, strokes, heart problems and shortened life expectancy.

“The problem is even graver for those who go out for work or exercise using bicycles,” said Ammad Hassan, who works for a mobile giant in Pakistan and is suffering from chest infection these days which rendered him unable to work for many days. Unfortunately, he is not the only victim of this poisonous smoke.

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimated in 2019 that 128,000 Pakistanis die annually due to air pollution-related illnesses.

Decision-makers on the other hand have been sluggish to say the least if not incompetent. Many officials and politicians continue blaming stubble burning by Indian farmers as the main cause for Lahore’s smog problem. Blaming India may be a tit-for-tat response to similar Indian accusations, but it is not an accurate assessment.

“The smog in Lahore is caused by a confluence of metrological and anthropogenic factors,” said Saleem Ali, a member of the United Nations’ International Resource Panel. The long list includes vehicular emissions, industrial pollution, fossil fuel-fired power plants, the burning of waste materials, and coal being burned by thousands of brick kilns spattered across the province are all part of the problem.

A Food and Agriculture Organization’s source appropriation study in 2020 singles out power producers, industry, and the transport sector in particular as culprits.

The government must take steps on war footings to combat alarmingly high level of air pollution in Lahore.

There is a dire need to prioritise bicyclists and pedestrians who made up almost 45% of traffic in Lahore in 2015. There is a clear absence of bike lanes or even sidewalks. And while Lahore has invested in expensive metro bus and rail projects, the feeder transit system is in a shambles.

Lahore, along with the rest of Pakistan, desperately needs to shift from its reliance on fossil fuels. Doing so would help clean up the transport and energy production sectors simultaneously.

Decision-makers in Lahore should focus on Band-Aid solutions. For instance, on pollution in particular, heavy days, offices and schools are closed to lessen human exposure and reduce traffic emissions. Punitive measures should also target farmers who burn stubble and clamp down on brick kilns.

Experts suggest that Lahore needs a multipronged approach to contend with its environmental woes, including air pollution, which in turn necessitates attention to improved urban planning as well. Regularising urban slums that lack any form of waste management could help address problematic practices, such as trash burning. More efficient urban management can reduce energy consumption and vehicular emissions. Instead, there is a profusion of encroachment into surrounding agricultural areas to create gated communities without much thought to the enormous environmental stress caused by unplanned urban sprawl.

Lahore’s 13 million residents find themselves choked; suffocated; poisoned by the hazardous smoke; everyone telling, “I can’t breathe.” The administration needs to listen to it before it’s too late!

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